Miranda rights may be changed to fight terrorism, Holder says

The Washington Post reports that the Obama administration is considering changes to the laws requiring police to inform suspects of their rights, potentially pursuing an expansion of the “public safety exception” that allows officers to delay issuing Miranda warnings, officials said Sunday.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in his first appearances on Sunday morning news shows as a cabinet secretary, said the Justice Department is examining “whether or not we have the necessary flexibility” to deal with terrorist suspects such as the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square last weekend.

“We’re now dealing with international terrorism,” Holder said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And if we are going to have a system that is capable of dealing in a public safety context with this new threat, I think we have to give serious consideration to at least modifying that public safety exception.”

The announcement marked a potentially significant change by the administration as it tries to manage the politics of national security after repeatedly coming under fire, mainly from conservatives, for being too willing to read Miranda rights to terrorism suspects. The administration is trying to thread a difficult needle: of taking a harder line on terrorism while staying within the confines of the criminal justice system.

Holder and other administration officials said they would be engaging Congress on putting together a proposal for changes to the law, which requires suspects to be told that they have the right to remain silent and that their statements may be used against them in court. They did not provide specifics of possible changes.

Under the current public safety exception, statements obtained before issuing the Miranda warning may be used in court — including to charge suspects — if it is determined that police needed to obtain information quickly to prevent further crimes. Once an immediate threat is ruled out, the Miranda warning must be read, under current law.

The goal of revisions would be to give law enforcement officials greater latitude to hold suspects within the criminal justice system and interrogate them for long periods of time — without having to transfer them to a military system or designate them as enemy combatants, officials said.

That could mean seeking a change not to the public safety exception but to a separate statute that governs how long a suspect may be interrogated before being brought before a judge. Currently, there are limitations on how long that period may last.

The New York Times reports that after the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jet on Dec. 25, for example, the F.B.I. questioned the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for about 50 minutes without reading him his rights. And last week, Mr. Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said, the F.B.I. interrogated Mr. Shahzad for three or four hours before delivering a Miranda warning.

In both cases, the administration relied on an exception to Miranda for immediate threats to public safety. That exception was established by the Supreme Court in a 1984 case in which a police officer asked a suspect, at the time of his arrest and before reading him his rights, about where he had hidden a gun. The court deemed the defendant’s answer and the gun admissible as evidence against him.

In Congressional testimony last week, Mr. Holder defended the legality of the delays in both cases, noting that the Supreme Court had set no time limit for use of the public-safety exception. But on Sunday, he seemed to indicate uneasiness about the executive branch unilaterally pushing those limits, and called for Congressional action to allow lengthier interrogations without Miranda warnings in international terrorism cases.

Philip B. Heymann, a Harvard law professor and high-ranking Justice Department official in the Carter and Clinton administrations, said the Supreme Court was likely to uphold a broader emergency exception for terrorism cases — especially if Congress approved it. “Not having addressed how long the emergency exception can be, the Supreme Court would be very hesitant to disagree with both the president and Congress if there was any reasonable resolution to that question,” he said.

Still, Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress had no authority to “chip away” at the Miranda ruling because it was based in the Constitution. He predicted that any effort to carve a broader exception would be vigorously contested.

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One Response

  1. […] the light of the ongoing discussion in the US on the restriction of Miranda rights, this approach seems to be quite […]

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